I decide to go for a drink after a demoralising day at work. My choice is not a rough men’s pub where women must sit quietly in the snug, but my unexpected presence makes the pool players pause mid-break and stand to attention. All eyes on me, though not in the way men used to look, eyeing me up. I am invisible in this town, but now my presence is felt – I have been seen. Though, ironically, the bloke who later chats to me, has a degenerative eye condition, requiring corrective contact lenses.
God sends meat and the devil sends cooks, is written behind the bar in cursive. The middle-aged barmaid takes my order; do I have any specific brand of gin in mind, or will Gordon’s do? I’m not fussed, I say.
Apart from two elderly men on bar stools, none of the men are seated, but they have marked their territory with pints and coats, so that I don’t know which table to pick. I choose the one nearest, even though it is adorned with a tepid, flat-looking pint of beer; the head has gone, leaving a scum round the rim.
I’m briefly tempted to talk to the barmaid, as she’s the only other female in the room, but I don’t. What would I say? I used to be a barmaid too – has it made one of your boobs bigger than the other, or do you alternate pulling hands? Mentioning breasts may not go down too well in here, I think, although one of the regulars breaks the silence with some innuendo to the barmaid, about handling his nut sack.
I take my seat, which is flat against the wall, very upright and uncomfortable; I think of the pedestal of infamy in Jane Eyre. Play has resumed, they chalk their cues, with talk of rules – are they nominating on the black? I have no idea what this means. The sign next to the bar optics informs me that it’s ‘gin o’clock’– which is fortunate. The fruit machine stands flashing and ignored up the corner, a pair of paint splattered decorators in tracksuit bottoms laugh together, while examining their phones.
One of the pool players shouts ‘Cunt!’ very loudly to someone at the other side of the room, who responds that there is a lady present. The cunt protests that there isn’t and I say that there are two, actually. The other pool player says to his mate, ”that’s the worst thing you can say.” “No, that’s – it’s your round,” the cunt responds and walks over to feed the jukebox.
A man sits down opposite, trying to focus his deteriorating eyes on my face, and informs me that it’s Jimi Hendrix, Isle of Wight Festival, 1970. I know, I say. He then lists all his favourite music from 1981 onwards, with me responding either yay or nay. Exhausting this topic, we then move onto football, of which I know absolutely nothing, although I have met Alex Ferguson, and throw this in at the appropriate moment – when he goes off on a tangent about Celtic vs. Rangers sectarianism. You wouldn’t want to mess with Alex in his day, he says. When I met him, he was politely sipping a cup of tea, I tell him. James Bond films then come up, via the origins of Duran Duran and the name of Simon Le Bon’s yacht. It’s Drum, but neither of us could remember this at the time.
I’ve noticed that men like to reel off facts to me, as though it’s a revision session for a pub quiz final. I don’t mind this – I’ve learned lots of new things this week, such as the correct temperature of water for making a cup of tea – 96 degrees C. (Am I expected to carry a thermometer around with me, in case anyone requests a perfect brew?). That A View to a Kill was the first Bond film not based on an Ian Fleming novel. That Birmingham City F.C. were originally called Small Heath Alliance…
Perhaps some men enjoy talking to women, but don’t know what to say? Other men would rather not share their space with you at all, and so they shout the worst thing they can think of, in the hope that you will take offense and leave. This ploy is useless – I frequented pubs full of glass-blowers and steel workers as a teenager, so the word cunt isn’t going to intimidate me.
At least it all felt real. It was an untouched, ungentrified pub, which hadn’t yet had the soul sucked out of it. It wasn’t a gastropub, run by metrosexual hipsters, serving posh cheese platters, instead of pork scratchings. God save me from such abominations. God bless old men’s pubs.